The Big Car Executive Director Talks Marketing, Placemaking, and why empathy is essential to changing the world.

Jim WalkerBefore Jim Walker became known as the shaggy-haired guy behind Indy’s most forward-thinking art collective, he was a lot like me.

Like me, he did time at the Indianapolis Star writing about the arts under the banner of the now-defunct newsweekly INtake (it was smart, savvy, and stapled, remember?). And like me, he worked at Well Done Marketing as a copywriter, developing his skills as marketer while working on projects for clients like LISC and St.Vincent.

That’s where the similarities between Jim and I pretty much end, except for maybe our taste in music (we both quite enjoy Stars of the Lid, Galaxie 500, and The Bats). While I’m pretty firmly committed to a career in marketing, Jim has moved on from traditional employment altogether (he likes to introduce Well Done founder Ken Honeywell as “the last boss I’ll ever have”) and has reinvented himself as one of Indy’s premier cultural entrepreneurs. After receiving a $50,000 grant in 2008, Jim got serious about making Big Car—until then a volunteer-run art collective best known for operating Big Car Gallery in Fountain Square—a serious cultural organization that invigorates neighborhoods through community-oriented art events and activities.

The next few years of the Big Car story have been told many times by various media outlets around town. And most recently, Big Car has made headlines for its newest and most ambitious venture: acquiring its first permanent space in Garfield Park and endeavoring to transform the economically depressed southeastside neighborhood into a vibrant, arts-oriented corridor connecting Fountain Square and the University of Indianapolis.

I recently sat down with Jim at Calvin Fletcher Coffee—a place, Jim noted, that’s exactly the kind of community hub Big Car hopes to emulate in Garfield Park—where he talked about how Well Done informed his approach to running Big Car, the meaning behind the buzzword “placemaking,” and why empathy is so important to doing meaningful community work.

Before you started full-time at Big Car, you were a fledgling copywriter at Well Done. Did that experience influence how you run Big Car today?

In several ways. First, I see Big Car as functioning in ways that are similar to a company like Well Done. We respond to the needs and wishes of our clients—the public and our community. And we do a lot of design: designing programming, spaces, communication, experiences, public art. Well Done is all about collaboration within the company and with its clients and partners. That’s how Big Car works too.

Also, I learned a lot about working with the community and the needs of our city’s neighborhoods by tackling the Great Indianapolis Neighborhood Initiatives quality-of-life plans at Well Done. I basically processed all of the big, varied plans that the community put together into executive summaries, and pretty much everything in the quality-of-life plans passed through my mind. I was really inspired, and I saw how it really fit well with the kinds of engaging and social art experiences we were making happen at Big Car Gallery at the time. This led to me thinking about how we could plug into the work going on at the grassroots level in neighborhoods.

What was the most important thing you learned at Well Done in terms of marketing Big Car?

That having a good product—something that really works and really does important things—is the most important part of it all. And I learned that relationships and partnerships are crucial. Well Done, starting with Ken, is a people place. And caring about people and creating strong relationships and partnerships through mutual exchange is a huge key to success in running an organization or business and getting the word out about what you’re doing.

What is placemaking, exactly? Why is that word so important to what Big Car does?

Placemaking is working intentionally to guide a public section of land—doesn’t have to be a park, it can be a stretch of Virginia Avenue in Fletcher Place—toward being a place for people. It is putting a there there. It could be called peoplemaking but that sounds like something Dr. Frankenstein did.

As placemaker David Engwicht (a TEDxIndianapolis speaker this year, by the way) says, it is the equivalent of making a house into a home. And the key ingredient to a home, to a party, and to most fun things for people, is other people. So placemaking is making a space great for socializing and being creative, comfortable, and fun.

One of my favorite placemaking projects in Indianapolis is the plaza at Bluebeard and Calvin Fletcher Coffee on Virginia Avenue. Many big ideas are born there every day. Relationships are formed there. That place supports the economy in multiple ways. And people hang out there for free and just talk or read a book. It is a home! And it used to be an empty house for a lot of nothing and some caskets before Tom Battista came along.

What will success on this Garfield Park project look like?

First, the neighborhood enjoys a higher quality of life, is safer, few buildings sit vacant, people of all backgrounds feel better connected to this place and their neighbors, and children and adults enjoy more opportunities to succeed.  Second, the neighborhood becomes a walkable village where small businesses thrive, employ and serve neighbors, and draw customers from all over the city. Third, people outside of the Garfield Park neighborhood begin to have more positive attitudes about this area and neighbors on all blocks enjoy an elevated level of pride and involvement. Finally, art and creativity become integral to the culture of the Garfield Park community and artists view the neighborhood as their long-term home. Plus, residents feel positive about artists in the community.

What advice would you give to a young person who wants to follow a similar career path, using the arts as an instrument to effect social change?

Start with focusing on others, and work really hard to practice empathy. Take a walk in the shoes of people who are very different from you and work hard to understand where they are coming from and what life is like for them. Ask a lot of questions, and really listen to the answers. Put time into that. Always work hard at learning. Understand that you don’t know that much, and you should never believe you have everything figured out. Focus outward with your work.

Good art, like good writing and design, is rarely just about the person who makes it. It’s about the audience, about the user. And it’s made in a way that allows others to feel connected, to step inside of what is going on. Art works best when the person who makes it is confident and capable enough to get out of the way and be excited about the outcome of the work and not just about having people pay attention to them or knowing they’re the ones who made it. In a nutshell: get over yourself and care about others.